Positional or Tactical Chess?

  • GM Gserper
  • | Jan 27, 2013

Probably all chess players ask themselves at some point of their chess career: "Am I a positional chess player or a tactician?" Based on the answer to this question they choose openings and the general strategy of their games.  But if you say that it doesn't really matter, then you have a point since as a well known chess saying goes: there are no positional and tactical chess players, there are only good and bad chess players!"

What made me write this article is the usual situation when a very inexperienced chess player, practically a beginner, starts the game with 1.d4, 1.c4 or 1. Nf3. I face this situation almost on a daily basis and I need to explain to my students that they shouldn't play these kinds of openings.  Don't get me wrong, I like all of them and if you check the database, you'll see that I have employed exactly these openings during most of my chess career. So, why do I strongly advise inexperienced chess players against these perfectly normal moves?

Usually it goes like this: my student plays 1.Nf3 and when I ask him why he chose this particular opening he says: " Well, I think I am a positional player, my style is similar to Kramnik's, and this is exactly what he plays". My usual thought in moments like this is: " You are am 1100 player for God's sake!  Before you talk about being a positional or tactical chess player you really need to learn how to play good chess first, and the best way to learn it is to play open positions which start with 1.e4!"  Then I try to explain to my student that it is not a coincidence that the majority of the great chess players started their chess journey by playing 1.e4.  Later they might switch to the closed openings, but at first they played all kinds of sharp lines which really improve your tactical skills and teach you how the pieces cooperate with each other. Just look at the games played by future World Champions.

Mihail Tal was 13 years old when he played the next game:

You may say that this is what Tal was famous for, he played like this his whole life including the time when he became the World Champion.  Good point! So, let's take a look at the games played by future World Champions who were known as positional chess players.

 Vassily Smyslov was 14 years old when he played the following game:

Vladimir Kramnik was just 9 years old when he played this game:

It was an absolutely crazy game.  It is difficult to imagine that the same kid who played White later got the nickname "Drawnik".

Finally I don't want you to think that 1.e4 is the only way to play for young chess players. True, it is the easiest way to get a sharp situation on the board, but if you have a desire to start 'fire on board', then almost any opening will do!

Jose Raul Capablanca was one of the finest positional chess players in chess history, but look at how he attacked when he was 13 years old:

Capablanca's comment when he was already the World Champion is very instructive: "Today I would most probably play a simple move 29. Qd2 which was also enough for a win."  But this is the whole point, young chess players should try their hand in sharp, complicated positions first and only then try positional chess.

It was very common in the countless chess clubs of the former Soviet Union that coaches taught their young students to play gambits, sharp openings like the Greco Attack and the Sicilian Dragon. My recommendation for all my readers whose rating is about USCF 1300 or below: try to play open sharp positions as much as possible.  Even if you play 1.d4 or 1.Nf3 go for complications whenever possible! Only a chess player who is proficient in tactics can be a successful tournament player.  Don't forget the popular saying that "chess is 99% tactics".  Don't be discouraged if you lose a game or two, the most important thing is to learn how to calculate variations and visualize a position, and you learn it best in sharp open positions!

Good luck!


  • 3 years ago


    I started sharp and I still am, even at 2000 USCF. I play mediocre openings, but my tactics allow me to outplay my opponents even from the WORST positions.

    like this game:

    I was black, and I was several pawns down.

  • 3 years ago


    I don't disagree that most of chess is tactics, but I don't think, by any means, you ought to play certain openings or else risk not practicing them properly. Tactics occur in any opening; if they didn't, people really could get away with playing pure positional chess. But as said they occur anywhere, so at any point where tactics failed you, whether it was a missed attack, or simply failing to finish off the opponent tactically after a strong positional build-up, you will inevitably be exposed to tons of tactics, and any feature of the game for that matter.

    What's more important in my view is developing an ability to problem solve. If you can play the sicilian, even as a beginner, and get a sense of how to place pieces well, when an attack works, and, yes, tactics, I think you are learning as well as you could hope for.

    And yes, the english will result in plenty of tactics inevitably. Again, if it didn't, then tactics would cease to be important after all depending on opening choice, but of course they do still occur.

    If you're just blindly playing it because one of your favorite players plays it, well that's another story.

  • 3 years ago


    Also (sorry for the double post) most players under 1300 only know theory about 3 moves deep anyway! So it's really not like playing d4 or e4 will lead to some known theoretical, line. Most likely they'll play 3. h3 h6, blunder a pawn by move 7 and the game is crazy already! :D Actually I don't think there's such thing as a quiet maneuvering game for that class :D

  • 3 years ago


    Definitely agree twith the main point of the article but I also believe the e4/d4 sharp/positional duality doesn't really exist. e4 has the Ruy, d4 has the semi-Slav (which can be positional but can also be ridiculously sharp)

    An opening is what you make of it. If you want complications you can find them in almost any position. 

  • 3 years ago


    Any move gonna to be an opening but how to use it smartly is the matter ! I think tactics are sons of good positions :) They relate don't make them 2 diffrent points please I hate that ! Good advice for beginners ..  

  • 3 years ago


    Excelente nota!!!

  • 3 years ago


     A Ruy Lopez which starts with 1.e4 could become a closed positional game with lots of subtle/quite maneuvering all over the board.

  • 3 years ago


    I think d4 and e4 should probably be your two options. I really don't think e4 is superior to d4. I started playing the queen's gambit after about a few months of playing the italian.

  • 3 years ago


    Well, as a chess Newbie I like to play 1.d4, but then seek out sharp tactical play as soon as possible.  I like it as a learner for two reasons.  1)  I feel intimidated by all the memorization which goes into 1.e4  2)  I feel like I can more easily bring on the fireworks on my terms by starting off closed. 

    Good article.

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks for the clarification!

  • 3 years ago

    GM Gserper


    There is no rule of thumb when you should switch to closed openings.  Personally I did it when was over 2400 FIDE.  But that was not the point of the article. The main idea was that if a beginner plays 1.Nf3, fianchettos his bishops and thinks he is playing positionally a-la Kramnik or Petrosian he is doing himself a huge disservice.  As long as he understands it and tries to play open, sharp chess, any opening would do it.  But still it is the easiest to achieve this goal by playing 1. e4!

  • 3 years ago


    a great idea which answers almost all chess player's question in mind.it answers mine,too

  • 3 years ago


    A very provocative article about chess playing styles, which to me is about what positional quaities a player is maneuvering to establish and convert into win; also, the quot by many top trainers, "A good maneuver for one player isn't for another'" or something like that applies.

  • 3 years ago


    well, I like the article, though I have been playing chess for about a year and use c4 exclusively the whole time.  My rating has gone from a low of 700 in June to a high of 1200 a couple weeks ago. (As black I use French and Gruenfeld).  Then again, I dont have any pretensions to a "style", and seldom look at master games because I dont understand them...yet... I have begun to learn a bit more about attacking in blitz.  There are a lot of tactics in defending a fianchetto, at least at my level.  And in marching pawns down the center, which I sometimes get away with after c4.

  • 3 years ago


    THere are others who propose 1.d4 for a new player.

  • 3 years ago


    GREAT Article, I thank you..

  • 3 years ago


    In my opinion, choosing an opening is a matter of personal preference. It doesn't mean that if I play 1. d4 I am a positional player, and if I play 1.e4 I am ready to fire tactical shots!. But as we try to emulate those legendary GMs, our focus tends to concentrate in one area (let us say position or tactic). As our experience and knowledge grow in various openings, then we select the opening that we believe that satisfy our moods. When I began playing chess I always play 1.e4 although I felt reluctant since i knew that my opponents would crush me under 30 moves. (Anyway, who cares, i don't know the word "imbalance" yet.) I remember one time that I tried to memorize a lot of tactical positions but I have only successfully employed a few of those in my games. Well, it seems frustrating but as I gained chess experience, sharp and open positions profited me because my defensive skill is greatly improve although my tactical skill is just in the average level when it comes to applying in my games.

  • 3 years ago


    If you are 1300 and you play against NM in an opan you will get demolished no matter what you play.

    I think that tactics in strong sense is not necessarily a point but it des not seem to me that this is what GM Serper advocated. Easy developement, central control, initiative and stuff like that is what makes e4 a good opening for beginners, I cannot agree more, but this goes hand in hand with lots of piece interaction and of course tactics.

  • 3 years ago


    @duniel: The problem with your point is that the Panov-Botwinnik very often leads to positions which basically transpose into a typical d4 defense - the Nimzo-Indian.

    Of course you can argue that your typical 1100 player can try a cheap tactic against f7 easier in an e4 e5 opening, but I would hardly call that enhancing tactical play. Now, If you told me that it is easier for beginners to play e4 e5 because development is straightforward and the concept of central control is easier to understand, as opposed to let's say, 1.Nf3 with double fianchetto I would agree.

    But especially beginners need to learn tactical patterns and practice calculation not be told "play e4 because you will get better at tactics".

  • 3 years ago


    Great article!

    @Gustran: Of course there are exceptions, on average one obtains more tactical positions with e4, Petrov is drawing on a very high level, not if you are 1300. Caro-Kann? Botvinnik-Panov attack is super-tactical just to name one system.

    @Kingssac: If you are 1300 you do not usually play against strong and prepared opponent:)

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